The plan for the GNU operating system was publicly announced on September 27, 1983, on the net.unix-wizards and net.usoft newsgroups by Richard Stallman. Software development began on January 5, 1984, when Stallman quit his job at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Artificial Intelligence Laboratory so that they could not claim ownership or interfere with distributing GNU as free software. Richard Stallman chose the name by using various plays on words, including the song The Gnu.

The goal was to bring a wholly free software operating system into existence. Stallman wanted computer users to be “free”, as most were in the 1960s and 1970s – free to study the source code of the software they use, free to share the software with other people, free to modify the behaviour of the software, and free to publish their modified versions of the software. This philosophy was later published as the GNU Manifesto in March 1985.

Richard Stallman’s experience with the Incompatible Timesharing System (ITS), an early operating system written in assembly language that became obsolete due to discontinuation of PDP-10, the computer architecture for which ITS was written, led to a decision that a portable system was necessary. It was thus decided that GNU would be mostly compatible with Unix. At the time, Unix was already a popular proprietary operating system. The design of Unix was modular, so it could be reimplemented piece by piece.

Much of the needed software had to be written from scratch, but existing compatible third-party free software components were also used such as the TeX typesetting system, the X Window System, and the Mach microkernel that forms the basis of the GNU Mach core of GNU Hurd (the official kernel of GNU). With the exception of the aforementioned third-party components, most of GNU has been written by volunteers of the GNU Project; some in their spare time, some paid by companies, educational institutions, and other non-profit organizations. In October 1985, Stallman set up the Free Software Foundation (FSF). In the late 1980s and 1990s, the FSF hired software developers to write the software needed for GNU.

As GNU gained prominence, interested businesses began contributing to development or selling GNU software and technical support. The most prominent and successful of these was Cygnus Solutions, now part of Red Hat.

In computing, gettext is an internationalization and localization (i18n) system commonly used for writing multilingual programs on Unix-like computer operating systems. The most commonly-used implementation of gettext is GNU gettext, released by the GNU Project in 1995.


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